Simulating climate change

  • 2016•03•16

    by Deepal Doshi

    On 27 February 2016, for eight exciting but challenging hours, I got the opportunity to step into the shoes of a policy maker with two goals in sight:

    • Come up with an implementable plan to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius
    • Represent the Agriculture and Land Use sector.

    375 students, 135 universities and 20 teams from across the world participated in this student simulation competition on climate change and the COP 21 in Paris. Six months into my joint Masters’ program at the United Nations University Institute of Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) and the Institute of Geography of the University of Bonn, I jumped at the chance to be one of them. The simulation is organized by Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration (NASPAA) in collaboration with the United Nations University – MERIT and Maastricht Graduate School of Governance in the Netherlands. The competition was held in seven regional sites in the United States and in Maastricht, the Netherlands.

    The goal of the competition was to come up with a plan to limit global warming to under 2 degrees Celsius by the year 2100. We competed in teams comprising of a maximum of 21 people. The winning teams of the regional sites in the US and in Maastricht were then compared to decide on the global winner on the basis of all three products we had to come up with. Our team, comprising of 18 people, was declared the global winner of the NASPAA competition 2016. We had managed to limit the global temperature rise to 1.9 degrees Celsius!

    Having participated in Model United Nations simulations before, I thought I knew what this would be like. However, this was completely different. The preparatory material for the competition was given 48 hours prior to the day of the competition. This included the main case, a sector briefing, worksheets and charts for the simulator. The competition was divided into three tasks and each task was allotted a specific time. Working under time pressure made the task at hand more difficult. In the first task we worked together as a sector. So for example, my sector- Agriculture and Land Use- decided what our stand point on the issue was by clarifying who we represented, what our interests were and what we proposed for the problem at hand

    In the second task, we worked with a complex simulator called En-ROADS developed by Climate Interactive, to analyse our plan. The inputs from the first task were inserted to check how close we were to our goal. Based on the System Dynamics method, this simulator gave us an insight into the intricate cause and effect relations of different factors affecting climate change, variable sensitivity of certain policy levers like emissions of other GHGs including Methane and F-gases, carbon price, subsidies to sustainable energy and population growth rate.

    Working with the simulator was fascinating and frustrating! It provided us the opportunity to explore a number of scenarios and made us come to conclusions such as – population growth rate could, under no circumstances, be greater than 1.9 %. Other noticeable results were that minimizing leakage of natural gas and reducing emissions of other GHGs and a high carbon price of $100/ ton among others played an instrumental role in limiting the global temperature rise to less than 2 degrees Celsius. Although limiting temperature rise was the main goal, it was not the only one!

    The simulator also calculated the feasibility score and stakeholder contentment score. So there were situations where we could finally limit temperature rise to less than 2 degrees but yielded a feasibility score of 4.5 and a highly imbalanced stakeholder contentment. The simulation successfully achieved its goals of challenging our understanding of climate change and immediately triggered heated negotiations and brainstorming as each individual sector tried to safeguard their position while keeping the overall aim in mind.

    This made the simulation seem real, as there we were, from different cultural backgrounds and studying in different countries, working with people we had never met before, to solve one global problem. This was an important lesson I took home. I realized how inter-disciplinary thinking works in reality as there were students studying policy making, international economics, environmental science, engineering etc. Coming from my Master’s program at UNU-EHS in Bonn, which has a highly diverse composition of students, I was relatively prepared for it but nevertheless it proved challenging. I also felt an additional responsibility as I was required to put aside my ideas for what each sector should do to reach our temperature goal, and be in the role of my assigned sector.

    Task two continued over lunch, as we lobbied for a high carbon price between soup and salad and worked out the feasibility of a greater subsidy to new technologies and biomass while trying out different kinds of Dutch cheese. After lunch, my team came to a consensus and relegated priorities as stakeholder interests were pushed to second place. This, in my view, was the turning point of the day. For once, we all finally started working as a team committed to a global interest. At the end of task two we came up with a comprehensive policy package and in task three had to create three products: a presentation on our implementable plan, a confidential policy memo outlining the implementation feasibility and barriers to our plan and a staffing proposal explaining the skills and competencies required to achieve our plan.

    Our solution proposed a carbon price of $100/ton of carbon emissions, taxes on coal and oil, subsidies on renewable energies and upcoming energy technologies. We recognized the instrumental role emissions from agriculture and land use had in limiting temperature rise and proposed a 50% reduction in this sector. As this brought down my sector contentment score, the policy included a monetization of ecosystem services and supported the UN REDD programme which is one of the most significant large scale investments against climate change. We also analysed the positive economic outcomes of a carbon tax with examples of some European countries. Limiting the global temperature rise to 1.9 degrees Celsius is no easy task!

    This competition made me realize the unintended consequences: both positive and negative of different solutions. It opened discussions on multi-solving and coming up with win-win policies and most importantly, gave me a hands on experience of how complex the problem is and that it cannot be solved using a silver bullet approach. It was an enriching experience to complement my studies and left me with a great sense of achievement.